Review by Tess Tabak
Although Charlie Jane Anders’ new book, The City in the Middle of the Night, is full of cool ideas, nothing gels enough to make it a standout read.
Several generations after humans have colonized a new planet, some people struggle to hold onto what little culture remains, while others question what value old Earth customs have to them in this new inhospitable place.
The premise is engaging, but the book fell dizzyingly short of my expectations. There were many reviews praising the world building, and calling Anders “this generation’s Le Guin.” However, in science fiction, world building and ideas are only half of the battle. I agree that the world is the best part of this book, but it’s all meaningless because of how the book is written and structured. The whole book is chaotically plotted, with random pacing. Anders introduces some ideas that seem really important, only to abandon them, maybe ten pages later, or a hundred. One character wants to steal a book from a castle, the only remaining piece of her heritage. Something changes and she’s dissuaded from going after it. Will it ever come back? You can find out, if you’re willing to invest the time while the characters now have really long conversations, because that’s what they’re doing now – not pulling off a heist, as originally advertised. Over halfway through the book, I had no idea where it was heading – and not in a good way. Anders does tie some of the ideas together in a cool way in the last 50 pages or so, but at that point, it was too little, too late.
I think some of the reviews comparing this book to Le Guin may have been piqued by the similarities between this book and Le Guin’s works like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, which thoughtfully explore alien cultures from an outsider’s perspective.
However, where Le Guin’s criticisms are deft and subtle, Anders was a little too on the nose for my taste. Xiosphant, the city our protagonist Sophie hails from, is a totalitarian regime masquerading as a democracy. In one scene, we learn that there’s a different type of money for everything: food, medicine, infrastructure, and so on. Workers must barter among each other to get what they need. One of the characters calls that “literally insane.” Another agrees, and adds that the government is trying to make people too busy to think.
This is a far cry from the subtlety of The Dispossessed, where Le Guin explores every angle of the two worlds we’re exploring. We eventually learn that both are oppressive in their own ways, but she also justifies capitalism and communism equally, showing us the benefits and disadvantages of each. We leave with a greater understanding of both her worlds and our own.
Meanwhile, Anders offers simplistic questionings of Xiosphant. It’s a repressive regime and must be stopped, obviously. Our protagonists are the only ones who have noticed this because they’re oh so clever and everyone else is, apparently, idiots. There’s little nuance. There are strict laws to control when people sleep and eat just because the government is tyrannical, no other reason is given.
The other major city, Argelo, is the polar opposite of Xiosphant – there are no rules, and everyone lives in decadent luxury. It’s not all great – prices are constantly rising, and Sophie notices a tent city in the outskirts of town, where people starve and suffer. However, this is presented as her being the only person smart enough to figure out the downsides of free capitalism. What could have been a really interesting conversation about capitalism versus communism comes off as a student noticing for the first time that there’s inequality in the world and feeling like the first person who’s figured that out – except in this book, Sophie does literally seem to be the first person.
Instead of blending together, many of the ideas feel jammed in. One example: Alyssa, a side character, is Jewish, which we learn early on from her casually mentioning Jewish activities, like going to synagogues, once or twice. However, instead of texturing the world, the mention of “old world” religions feels shoehorned in. We never get to know any of the side characters well enough to know what their religion really means to them. Alyssa gleefully eats pork at one point – so is she a cultural Jew? Reform? Does it matter? It’s said that she’s “one of the last Jews” on the planet, but what does that even mean to her?
We never get to see more of the characters than broad stereotypes. Sophie is a Mary Sue: people around her constantly tell her how smart, generous and nice she is even though she’s almost completely passive and does basically nothing for the entire book, except for stumbling into sentient sort-of-crocodiles. The characters are all vaguely bland and unlikeable; two side characters, Alyssa and Bianca, are so interchangeable I had to constantly keep reminding myself which one was which.
I get the sense that Anders is trying to play on sci-fi tropes at some points – maybe – but it’s all so muddled it’s really hard to get a grip on the tone. Another problem I had with the book – people keep judging one another by their racial/ethnic appearance, to figure out which city-state their ancestors had originally come from on Earth. It’s a cool concept to explore racism and jingoism on Earth continuing if we colonized another planet, but I had a lot of questions about how this visual profiling is happening.
If someone is physically of Indian descent (as one of our protagonists, Sophie, is), how do we know that their ancestors “came over on the Nagpur compartment” and weren’t actually from America, or somewhere else? A big deal is made about how each “compartment” (race/ethnicity) was responsible for one task for the entire ship – Nagpur (India) designed the interiors, New Shanghai built the infrastructure. It’s cryptically mentioned that Zagreb (Europe?) had nothing to offer, but were told to just bring their “culture,” things like cooking spices and works of literature, “everything you’d need to re-create true civilization”. I really question what this means – did none of the other six city-states have culture to offer? That’s really how that sounds.
While I genuinely enjoyed some of the ideas explored here, I couldn’t get past everything else.
The City in the Middle of the Night will be released January 22, 2019 from Tor Books.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.